Monday, December 10, 2007

Be Careful: The Elephants Can Smell You Coming

How do you remember who is a danger to you and who is not? This is a question applicable to all organisms big and small. To know a characteristic of your predator, and to detect it before the predator is within close range can make the difference about laughing about the “near catch” with the pack at night, or being the main entrée at the pack that night. So what would….oh lets see……the elephant use? The answer might be surprising. Professor Byrne of the University of St. Andrews recently conducted a study in Kenya to determine how elephants detect their biggest predator, humans. In Kenya, there are two main human groups, the Maasai and the Kamba. The Maasai are a hunting tribe, and as you probably already guessed, are the main predator of elephants. On the other hand, the Kamba are an agricultural people, and do not harm the African Elephant.

Prof. Byrne’s hypothesis was that elephants use smell in order to detect their predators. In order to test this hypothesis he had both indigenous groups wear the exact same shirts in order to give them a distinct “scent profile” They then placed these shirts in front of the elephants and observed their reactions, which were overwhelming. The shirts of the Maasai, when placed in front of the elephants, elicited a “fear response” in which the elephants ran in the other direction until at a safe distance from the shirts. When they did the same with the shirts of the Kamba, the elephants were considerably less likely to flee. The Maasai wore brightly colored shirts (red) when hunting, so the researchers believed that this could be a possible reason. Maybe the elephants had an aversion to the color. They tested this hypothesis, but it had less conclusive findings than that of the scent profile. Yes, the elephants did tend to flee from red colors, but it was not a consistent response.Could the scent profile really be that dramatic? Apparently so. They are currently studying what particular aspect the elephants smelled in order to elicit the flee response.

Posted by Doug Zelisko (12)


At 2:05 PM, Blogger PWH said...

This is a very interesting article! I am assuming that elephants are used to being chased by Maasai dressed in red, therefore associated red with danger, but I was wondering if other colors such as yellow can do the same considering that lions are also predators?
Posted by Vanessa Raphael (12)

At 11:52 PM, Blogger PWH said...

Elephants are such amazing creatures! I believe we underestimate elephants' overall intelligence. I have never heard of this specific research, but I have heard that elephants gather near a herd mate that has died, resembling a funeral. I have also heard that elephants can remember a herd mate for over 20 years if separated.

Posted by: Kathryn DeLisle (12)

At 12:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love elephants! It's quite interesting that they learned to avoid danger in this manner. In my opinion, elephants are amazing animals of study. As Kathryn mentioned above, they have quite the memory for traumatic events.

Posted by Christine Tauras (12)

At 6:25 AM, Anonymous peanutbutter&jelly said...

Wow, this was a really interesting article. I've never heard this about elephants however I did read about bears being able to sense the smell of a human, not sure where I read it. This is definitely beneficial for elephants if they can do it with all their predators. I thought the experiment they conducted with putting the shirts in front of elephants was even more interesting. GOOD JOB!!!!!!!! It was a very good article, this article posting thing was definitely very informative and interesting. Great job!

Posted by Peanutbutter & Jelly

At 9:10 PM, Blogger PWH said...

Good article. That's a very interesting experiment but i wonder if there is anything other than smell and color in the environment that could trigger the same response from elephants. Great Job!

Posted by Joanne Philippeaux


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